Perry was wrong about grid reliability — NRDC

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Traditional “baseload” power plants often are not necessary to power the grid reliably, according to a study released this morning that was commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The analysis from the Brattle Group comes ahead of a wide-ranging grid study from the Department of Energy expected next month. In ordering that assessment, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said baseload power is “necessary for a well-functioning grid.”

NRDC said it didn’t want to prejudge the DOE study. However, the advocacy group suggested, the Brattle Group research demonstrates that initial statement from Perry is inaccurate.

The term baseload itself is an artifact, since it often assumes that coal and nuclear plants are always the cheapest sources of power and play the role in the energy supply landscape they once did, according to NRDC. Low natural gas prices, declining renewable costs, energy efficiency gains, low electricity demand growth and increased use of storage have helped change that.

“The cost advantages once enjoyed by coal and nuclear plants have declined,” the report states.

John Moore, director of the Sustainable FERC Project at NRDC, said “this report makes clear that no single technology or fuel type is needed to keep the lights on around the clock in U.S. homes and businesses. Policymakers, grid operators and utilities should focus on defining the electric system’s needs and meeting them in a technology-neutral manner.”

Demand response, batteries, smaller solar installations located near customers and flexible conventional power plants are among the resources that can provide reliable electricity, the report said.

The Brattle Group considered multiple earlier studies, including one that found the Southwest Power Pool could handle wind penetrations as high as 60 percent. Last year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory released a study finding that wind and solar could power 30 percent of the Eastern grid (Greenwire, Aug. 31, 2016).

The term “baseload” has been used in different ways, perhaps most prominently as shorthand for power sources that provide low electricity operating costs, NRDC said.

But the term doesn’t automatically mean 100 percent reliability — power plants can shut down because of things like blackouts or maintenance, NRDC said. Grid planners increasingly value “resource flexibility” to balance supply and demand, which can be a challenge for baseload plants that cannot easily turn and off, according to the report.

Instead of thinking about “baseload,” grid planners should focus on the overall system, resource costs and policies such as greenhouse gas reduction goals to find the most cost-effective fuel mix, the report said.

There are several other grid studies in the works, including one slated for the fall from a new group led by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz (Greenwire, June 21).

They are not likely to end the debate about the grid’s future. Coal supporters say there needs to be greater consideration of the impact of Obama-era regulations on retiring coal plants.

“NRDC can call baseload power a unicorn, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the backbone of our energy grid has been placed at greater risk by the reduction in nuclear- and coal-generated power at the same time renewables are not the cavalry that will be coming to the rescue of consumers,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.